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RCASA’s Friday Facts: Sexual Assault in Rural Communities

In Education, Friday Facts, Outreach, Prevention, Sexual Assault Awareness on September 17, 2010 at 8:00 am

When sexually assaulted in a rural community, victims often find that opportunities for medical, legal or support services are very limited, or even non-existent.  Their economic situation and geographic isolation may further limit their options.  Strong community ties in rural areas mean that a victim is more likely to be acquainted with the perpetrator than in urban settings.  Finally, rural culture tends to be close-knit, self-contained, often conservative and unlikely to turn to “outsiders” for assistance.  Together these characteristics result in low rates of reporting, limited opportunities for victim services, and difficulties for service providers.  In other words, a victim of sexual violence in a rural community is not likely to report to police or to locate or access services.

Recent years have witnessed a growing focus on the unique needs of rural populations in the related areas of community and health services.  Rural mental health programs, social work policymakers, and women’s health providers are increasingly viewing cultural and economic characteristics in rural areas as unique, and as having significant impact on service delivery.

In particular, anti-domestic violence researchers have been investigating issues of rural advocacy, but virtually none of these studies pay significant attention to the specific needs of the sexually assaulted, or to the particular set of problems facing sexual assault advocates in rural areas (Edleson & Frank, 1991; Monsey, Owen, Zierman, Lambert, & Vincent, 1995; Websdale, 1998; Murty & Schechter, 1999; Correia, 1999). A natural intersection does exist between the work of domestic violence and sexual assault advocates, with many providers serving both types of victims, and serving victims who experience both types of abuse. Although these documents provide little specific insight regarding rural sexual abuse, they do address some shared problems. For example, service providers in rural areas face many similar challenges, such as difficulty with transportation and isolation. Rural domestic violence research, however, lacks clear focus on the particular difficulties facing both rural sexual assault victims and rural sexual assault service providers.

A strong logic dictates a serious examination regarding the prevalence of sexual assault in rural areas as compared to urban and suburban areas. It adds to our understanding of criminal victimization, it sheds light on cultural, social, and demographic characteristics, and ultimately helps justify all other investigations into rural sexual assault issues. Over the last decade, several focused investigations have begun to address issues of rural sexual assault through larger scale research.

Most rural practitioners know, even without research, how very difficult it is to work in rural areas. Through their work experience, they have come to understand the many unique characteristics of rural sexual assault. The picture that has emerged of the characteristics and difficulties of sexual assault in rural areas underscores many of the problems faced by service providers and victims. They include situations of victim isolation from services, traveling long distances, long deserted often unpaved and unlit roads, lack of medical facilities, and dealing with rural law enforcement that is sometimes quite conservative, unsympathetic, and untrained with respect to sexual assaults.

A few practitioners and staff of organizations have begun to write about the subject (Royse, 1999; Levy 2002; “Stopping the stigma,” 2001; Lewis 2003). These documents illustrate the problem of confidentiality for rural victims, isolation, and many other barriers to reporting and services. They point to cultural attitudes such as a frequent distrust of outside help that makes the work of rural sexual assault advocates particularly difficult. The two following examples of documents penned by rural practitioners provide a credible view of the many challenges in responding to sexual assaults in rural areas.

A fairly broad but brief sketch of sexual assault in rural areas grew out of a presentation made to the National Non-Stranger Sexual Assault Symposium, in 1999 (Royse, 1999). The report of the symposium proceedings provides a broad view of the rural realities for both victim and service provider.  It discusses virtually all of the rural characteristics that make service delivery difficult.  Royse touches upon obstacles in reporting, the lack of anonymity, conservative cultural values that affect perceptions of sexual assault, problems faced by rural responders, and characteristics of rural law enforcement in processing sexual assault cases.  So many of these characteristics carry great implications for the victim’s willingness and ability to report crimes.  For example, even if the victim wants to report an assault and has the transportation to a local rape crisis center, just parking her car in the vicinity of the services will compromise her anonymity. Or, in visiting a local clinic or hospital, the nurse may be a neighbor or even a relative of the victim or the perpetrator. Royse (1999) explains, “Even seeking support and assistance from clergy, a neighbor or friend can run into the individual and societal prejudices that made it difficult to report”(p. 48).

Additionally, Royse (1999) asserts that, “(i)t is obvious that the most frequently occurring sexual assault, non-stranger sexual assault, is not only occurring in rural America, but may be a hidden and unidentified epidemic” (p. 47). This assertion of a rural epidemic is the only known written statement by a practitioner that attests to a high prevalence of sexual assault in rural communities. The strength of her insight into the rural realities begins to shed light on the magnitude of rural sexual assault and the possibility that there is a “hidden and unidentified epidemic.”

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